COVID19: WIDOWHOOD ‘AGENCY’, EXPOSED BURDENS, CULTURE & GENDER ALLIES

Roseline Orwa Gender, Violence Against Women and Girls

Roseline Orwa and Valentine Linet set out in June 2021 to understand how widows in rural Siaya were coping and managing during Covid-19. With majority being survivors of two pandemics – HIV and Covid-19, we asked them how they wanted to engage. From which we employed deep sensitivity and a story telling approach during one-on-one interviews. In this blog, we decided to bring out their voices as an emergent group in the gender struggle.

Mildred, widow leader addressing a widow group in Gem, Siaya
Credits: Michael Onyundo, Communication Officer, Rona Foundation

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, I took it upon myself to conduct periodic home visits as we could not meet as a group. The widows were calling me with many complains about hunger, domestic violence, and teenage pregnancies. When lockdown restrictions were lifted, I started visiting widow groups. One widow shared her challenges – her daughter still in high school got pregnant and eloped with a fisher man, and her business had closed as her family had relied on her fish stock to feed. I was afraid of coronavirus, but I had to risk going out to offer support”. – Mildred Oloo, Widow Leader.

Exposed Multiple Burdens

Before Covid-19, majority of rural widows were living in poverty, invisible and struggling with livelihoods. They continue to encounter many social and economic challenges, all of which have been exacerbated by this pandemic. With Covid-19 lockdowns, the struggle to get by and provide for their children has resulted in deteriorating mental health for some. Widow leaders like Mildred offer more than a shoulder to lean on. They offer the psychosocial support and counselling services to new widows and those struggling with socio-economic burdens. They are also peer mentors and reporters of gender abuse cases to relevant duty bearers. During Covid-19, the widow leaders’ key role has become micro-credit educators who monitor village banks and manage group dynamics within Rona Foundation’s network of 8000 widows in Siaya.

The widow groups are their safe space for moral support and an a avenue that offer them micro credit services for income generating activities. This has been the sole economic resource for rural widows as Covid-19 delta variant ravages on with new lockdowns in the region.

I applied for a loan to invest in my second-hand clothes trade business only for the state to sanction importation of (mtumba) goods. I used the loan to meet my household needs and take care of my seven children, leaving me with a debt and dilemma. This year, I began to rare local chicken that I sell on Whatsapp.  It’s not easy” – Mildred Oloo, Widow Leader.

Most widows in rural Siaya largely depend on working family members and well-wishers to meet their daily needs. Covid-19 resulted in decreased financial assistance as their working children became jobless, and them having to send their farm produce to their families living in the city.

 “My son had earlier travelled to Nairobi in search of employment where he luckily secured a job as a waiter in a restaurant., But after the outbreak of the pandemic he lost his job so I had to support him by sending him potatoes, bananas and maize”, said Margaret, 54-year- old widow in Alego.

Teenage daughters of widows have become victims of sexual abuse in their search for food security. Child labour is on the rise. Some widows encourage their children to venture into work such as fishing, hawking, and manual labor in people’s farms. Some daughters join the sex trade in an attempt to contribute to their household. Involvement of young people in such activities hamper gains made in child protection and present the risk of being preyed on by paedophiles leading to increased school dropout rates.

“There is a new trend where rural youth engage in early sex, alcohol and substance abuse. This sub – culture had long died. In my village a 16-year- old girl has 3 children. We have reverted to old days where girls were married off at the age of 12 or 14yrs. I’m very worried”.Aluga, (75yrs) Male champion, Village Elder

Stubborn cultural norms

“After the death of my “husband”, my son (a son to my brother- in- law) forced me to be his inherited wife. He threatened to sell my land and house to leave me homeless. This is a taboo in my culture, but the relatives forced me into submission because I’m a childless widow. He beats me. I have reported the case and now in court.” – Jane (37yrs) Widow.

Jane’s case is one of many, where a widow begins to search for an elusive justice, as sexual gender-based violence (SGBV) is a social norm and considered normal. From the testimonies, widows are subjected to accusations and perceived as a lesser group of women, and Covid-19 has made accessing any legal support more difficult.

While burial procedures have been dismantled by the pandemic, the harmful traditional (widowhood) practices remain unspoken and unprosecuted. The culture prescribes that such cases be handled at the household level, ideally using kangaroo courts which are but a slap on the wrist to the perpetrators. As a widow leader, Jane has taken her case to court, and is helping other widows in her village seek justice through her act of courage through the bureaucratic legal system. Jane’s case is unique as most widow cases go unreported and unprosecuted due to the acceptance of long-standing cultural norms

Stepped- up Proximate leadership
Focused Group Discussion attended by widow leaders and male champions in Bondo, Siaya
Credits: Pascalia Ogutu, Programs Officer, Rona Foundation

We discovered men who defend widow rights are discriminated on the assumption that they are interfering with widow-headed households. Of note is their will and dedication to fight and defend widow rights that transcend to challenges in their personal lives. Our focused group discussion (FDG), attended by widows and male champions, revealed social stigma from male peers to men who fight for women rights.

“You are used to sitting with widows, what can you tell us?”.Salim, Male Champion narrated how his peers posed this question to him. Such stereotypes see widows as vulnerable individuals who deserve no protection from any man. The discrimination faced by widows is similarly experienced by male protectors.

“My church has been providing safe spaces for SGBV survivors to heal, however, unfortunately the church has been in lockdown. The widows are the most affected lot, especially by power imbalance between men and women, and worsened by interference from the extended family whose greed for property is shocking.” Pastor  Silas Orwa.

The widow leaders lamented the long church lockdown. As they had found new allies in the church, local chiefs and willing community stakeholders like Pastor Silas. Besides spiritual care, the church has always provided support for many in need and has served the role of a mediator in gender abuse.

The FDG ascertained that education plays a pivotal role in equipping widows with knowledge and linkages that aid in protecting their rights. Unfortunately, due to high illiteracy levels among rural widows in Siaya, most of them are not aware of their rights, forms of SGBV and how to report. In response to some of these outcomes, Rona Foundation has partnered with the Kenya Police – Siaya and aims to organize multiple community outreach programmes. This will improve prevention and response on widow abuse cases. The newly formed partnership will also educate the gender desk police officers on harmful traditional (widowhood) practices as a main root cause of gender violence.

 “The police vehicle took me home from the outreach, but I slept hungry that day because I did not go to sell my cassava at the market. My children looked at me funnily. We need a stipend as a widow leader for the work.”Mama Monica, widow leader, Alego.

Mama Monica, widow leader during the partnership review meeting with the police in Siaya
Credits: Michael Onyundo, Communication Officer, Rona Foundation.

From our data and conversations, gender and grassroots development require a multi-prong approach. These challenges can be narrowed through long term interventions that comprise of humanitarian, rights-based programmes and socio-economic empowerment initiatives. The need for long term interventions is as important as the need for Covid-19 vaccine roll out in rural areas. It is difficult to answer when these two will reach the rural widows in Siaya.

About Author: Roseline Orwa, widow champion, is founder and director of the Rona Foundation, and a Life Long  Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity at the London School of Economics.